by Gary Perry
“SVW” is shorthand for a range of three models produced by MG in the years 1936 to 1939. The SA was produced from 1936, the VA from 1937 and the WA from 1938. Each model had three main body styles offered – the Saloon, Tourer, and Tickford Drop Head Coupe.
All three models officially ceased being produced when war broke out in September 1939 however a number of cars were completed after this date. The range was not revived after the war and the Y type was introduced as the successor.
The SVW range was the first to be produced by MG after MG Cars were incorporated into the Nuffield Group in 1935. Rationalisation and cost control were the order of the day, and MG had to stop the development of out and out racers such as the R Type. They also lost their design and drawing office, which was transferred to Cowley. The S type, which was under development with independent front suspension and a ladder chassis, was abandoned. Instead, MG had to modify and use existing Nuffield parts in the SVW range. This was a step backwards to the origins of MG cars.
At the time these cars were known by their engine size, and were called the “2 litre”, the “1½ litre” and the “2.6 litre” in the advertising and sales literature.
In total 5516 SVW cars were produced: 2739 SAs, 2407 VAs and only 369 WAs. Of these, we know of 653 still in existence: 263 SAs, 341 VAs and 49 WAs.
The rarest of all is the WA Tourer. Nine were made in total of which 8 were supplied to the Glasgow Police Force. One of these police cars is the only known survivor.
History and Specification Changes
In 1935 and prior to the incorporation into the Nuffield Group, General Manager Cecil Kimber did at least have the freedom to have a design commissioned for a new 6-cylinder saloon. The design was originally by Mulliner and was a classic mid 1930’s shape with sweeping curves and a long bonnet. Although many contemporary cars such as Bentley and Jaguar had similar design features, the MG version was particularly attractive.
Into the Mulliner design went a Nuffield cast iron conventional overhead valve push rod engine shared with the Wolseley 18/80. This engine was developed from a side-valve engine with origins going back to the Bullnose Morris of the 1920’s. Wolseley cars used twin SU carburettors like MG, but MG re-engineered the cylinder head and improved the breathing, getting a few more bhp, but still staying within the RAC horsepower rating of 18 hp. This rating was based on capacity of the engine rather than power output.
As initially shown at the 1935 Motor Show the new MG 2 Litre was well received. Sadly, despite many advanced orders, it took over 6 months to reach the showrooms.
For production cars the engine was bored out from the original 2062cc Motor Show car to 2288cc. With stiff competition from Jaguar it was decided to increase engine capacity in early 1937 to 2322cc – exactly 18 hp.
The SA was heavy and long, racy enough to justify the MG badge, but in truth not a notably advanced or powerful car. Its main appeal was its elegant looks and sumptuous interior. It featured a dramatic fascia with gold dials, door and dash panels with inlaid wood, leather upholstery, silk cushions for the rear passengers, opening quarter lights and a rear blind that could be operated from the drivers seat. Despite the high specification, it was modestly priced at £375.
Development of the models
Early in the production life of the SA, development started on a smaller four cylinder variant. This was to become the VA, or 1 ½ litre. Announced in 1936, the engineering of the two cars was very similar with a major difference being synchromesh on 2nd, 3rd and 4th gears for the VA instead of only on 3rd and 4th on the SA. During 1937 the VA clutch was changed to a dry one although the SA retained a wet clutch until its demise in 1939.
The VA was a sprightly car, with a better power to weight ratio than the SA. The shorter body provided similar accommodation as the SA, although it did not have the stately impressiveness of that car.
The SVW range was a favourite of many police forces at the time. In particular the Tourer body offered a fast car, whilst with the hood down it gave the Police Officer high visibility to the public. The VA Tourer was particularly popular with a special Police upgrade available for the VA engine using the larger WA pistons. Due to its construction the VA Tourer was also the lightest car and therefore had the best acceleration. MG produced a confidential catalogue for the police forces to pick their own upgrades.
The 1548 cc VA engine was also used in the modified T Type racing cars called “Cream Crackers”, but was found to be uncompetitive until it was bored out to take the pistons as in the police specification engines. This gave 1706cc and proved successful in competitions before the war.
Probably in an attempt to keep up with the competition, the SA was reworked in 1938 to become the WA. The first prototype was completed by May 1938 and with full production starting in December. Still a 6-cylinder car, the WA had an even longer bonnet on a similar chassis although it had been widened 3 inches at the rear. The engine was not just a bored out from the SA, but was recast at the Morris foundries. This new engine had 73mm pistons, had a counterbalanced crank and inbuilt water cooler. It was now 2.6 litre and gave 20 hp. To this was joined a dry clutched gearbox with synchromesh on 2nd, 3rd and 4th gears.
The WA did not replace the SA, but was sold alongside it. There were 146 SAs produced whilst the WA was in production so the WA outsold the SA by more than 2 to 1 in this period.
Morris Motors bodied the Saloons and VA Tourer, Charlesworth bodied the open SA & WA Tourers and all of the Drop Head Coupes (called a “folding head foursome”) were bodied by Salmons and Sons (later renamed as Tickford). It was also possible to buy the SVW range as a chassis only. This led to a number of elegant special bodied cars being created around the world.
There were constant changes to all areas of the car design from layout of the instrument panel to steering and suspension upgrades. The basic Tickford and Saloon bodies were little altered but the SA Tourer had 3 different styles of bodywork in the 3 years of its production.
These are big heavy cars and therefore needed to have a substantial chassis and drive train. This has meant that these parts of the SVW models last really well. Rarely are there problems of rot in the chassis or a mechanical component that cannot be rebuilt.
Now, at least 80 years old, the SVW bodywork often has suffered. The bodies are constructed with an ash timber frame, which can rot – particularly from woodworm. This frame is hidden behind the metal skin and is the strength of the car body. It can often be expensive to repair. In particular the door pillars can lose their strength, as the doors are so heavy with both front and rear hanging from the one pillar. For the SA and WA Charlesworth bodies, they fitted a door pillar support onto the chassis. For all cars try holding the end of the doors when open and lift them up and down to see what movement is found in the pillars.
The saloons tend to suffer with rot in the upper timbers. This has often started with the water outlets from the sunroof under tray becoming blocked. This affects the windscreen pillars and the rear quarters. As with many MGs, where the wings touch the main body the wing piping traps moisture and dirt. This gives rust in this area for both wing and body tub.
The models fitted with the spare wheel in the front wings often suffer with rust in the bottom of the wheel well as draining is poor in this area. Similar problems occur for the SA saloon spare wheel fitted behind a metal cover on the boot.
The front and rear wings suffer from the usual bends and twists from small impact.
The Tickford bodies were well made with each Tickford constructed part carrying a unique number for each car. Even the pram irons have the numbers stamped in the back with a plaque mounted under the bonnet showing this number. The WA Tickford body was strengthened by an additional steel frame which took away some of the flexing found on the SA. The VA being smaller and more compact does not suffer in the same way.
As with all of the SVW range, the interior trim is sumptuous and therefore expensive to replace. Leather kits and complete seats are available along with a fitting service offered by specialists. The Tickford hood mechanism is simple if somewhat time-consuming to use and expensive to replace. It offers a good level of protection from the elements. Early SA Tickfords were fitted with a hole in the passenger side of the vehicle to insert a handle to wind the soft top up and down. This was soon discontinued, probably due to cost.
The SA and WA Charlesworth along with the Morris bodied VA Tourer have sidescreens similar to the T Types. This makes keeping out the wind and rain a challenging task and is also expensive to replace.
The engine, gearbox and axles are large and solid. The engine blocks do not tend to suffer with the cracks in the water jacket that was so common with the MG TA and MMM cars. Nearly all of the SA and early VA engines had cast white metal conrod bearings. Thin wall shells were used for later VA’s, the last 6 SA engines and all of the WA models. Unfortunately these shell bearings are no longer available so owners have experimented with similar sized bearings from other manufacturers. Recently an engineering company has been re-metalling these bearings to the required size. This is cheaper than replacing with the earlier poured white metal types. The main crank bearings have the same problem. Remanufactured pistons, camshafts, rocker shafts and timing gears are available as are the gaskets and other consumables required to undertake an engine restoration. The WA was fitted with an automatic timing chain tensioner and an oil cooler as standard. All of the cylinder heads can be converted to run on unleaded petrol.
Contrary to what has been published in other articles, the WA was not just a bored out SA block. Instead the WA block was recast. This was due to the WA being fitted with a counterbalanced crankshaft which would have caused interference with the oil pickup. The oil level sender unit was also located on to the opposite side of the aluminium ribbed sump. Other than this the sump was the same size and capacity as the SA.
The engine for the SA and WA will happily sit all day at 70 mph whilst the VA prefers the 60-65 mph region. The oil pressure should be 30-40 psi when hot and running at 40 mph. The engines are typical MGs with a slight tappet noise. If the tappets are silent then it is likely that they have been over adjusted. Correct adjustment is straight forward but unless set correctly will soon cause problems. The oil flow to the rocker shaft can be considerable – leaving those import crank journals with scant lubrication. It is common practice to fit a restrictor to the cylinder head so as to allow more flow to the bottom end. Engines should run smoothly and rev freely – particularly if the engine has been correctly balanced during the rebuild. Camshafts do wear like most MGs. The double valve springs on the SA were replaced in March 1939 with triples springs.. The VA and WA had triple springs from the outset. These triple springs were introduced as owners complained of valve bounce at high speed. Also the cam followers live a hard life.
Carburettors are of the standard SU design, although the SA has downdraught carbs. Some vaporisation may occur but this does not affect all cars.
Water pumps are a bit of a problem with the original style carbon seal often leaking. This type of seal can often take 1,000 miles of use to bed in and stop leaking. Sealed for life bearings and modern lip seals solve this. Keeping a spare rebuilt water pump in the car is a good idea. Many owners now fit an electric fan to the back of the radiator. This is easy to fit and stops overheating when queuing on the M25.
The gearbox is a good solid item and often only requires new bearings. Some of our Australian owners have had problems with 3rd gears breaking on the SA but this is not common elsewhere. The SA and early VA had a cork clutch running in oil as in the TA. When adjusted correctly this gives a good gear change and lasts many thousands of miles. Make sure that there is some movement of the clutch pedal before the clutch starts to disengage. The later VAs and all the WAs were fitted with a dry clutch.
Axles are well made and strong with new half shafts, bearings and hubs available off the shelf. The recent introduction of a higher ratio crown wheel and pinions gives a 500rpm drop in engine speed when on the motorway.
All of the models were fitted with hydraulic Lockheed brakes as standard giving excellent stopping ability for the period. The WA even had a tandem master cylinder! New rubber kits and re-sleeved cylinders bring these heavy cars to a quick stop.
The Jackall hydraulic jacking system is operated from inside the car and allows for selection of Front, Rear or All jacks. The latter option obviously lifts the whole car from the ground. The rams themselves are prone to rusting and some owners have had problems getting the rams back into the jack after use. Also the system is likely to leak. New seals and stainless steel rams are now available. These Jacks were standard on the SA and WA but an optional extra on some VAs
These are heavy cars and so the leaf springs need to be in good condition. If the car hits the ground or is sitting down over the back wheels then the springs need to be reset by a good specialist forge. New springs are available. The round Luvax vane type shock absorbers are ok on the early SA and VA when properly maintained. The VA owner could even order adjustable shocks until October 1938 when this option was withdrawn. The WA, later SAs and VAs were fitted with the more modern piston type, similar to those on the later T types but somewhat larger.
On the road
These cars are slow away from the lights but will soon get going and keep up with modern day traffic. There is some slight mechanical noise from the speedo and rev counter, however given frequent lubrication of the cables and dials the noise should not be intrusive.
The SA and WA will cruise easily on the Motorways at 70 mph plus, whilst the VA prefers 60-65 mph. So they are just as useable a car today as when new.
Listen out for clonks from the front and rear wheels when starting off or when going in reverse. This can be a sign of worn hubs or half shafts. Braking should be straight and even. The ride is extremely comfortable with minimal wind noise. Four adults can easily be carried. The visibility from the font seats is good and impressive down the bonnet and over the chrome headlights, however the rear view is not great. This is a particular problem with the convertible cars with their ‘letter box’ rear window. With the hood down rear seat passengers enjoy splendid views but in the hood up position there is very limited side and rear vision.
The SA engine was notorious for running hot and cooking its occupants. The 4 backward opening ventilation doors on the early SA bonnets were replaced with 2 forward opening in early 1937. This still did not solve the problem so a louvered bonnet was fitted along with an additional air vent on the scuttle and side air vents to the front foot wells. When the VA and WA were introduced, they were fitted with a firewall as had been used in early MGs. This seems to have solved the problem.
Steering on the SA is heavy, particularly during slow manoeuvring, with the VA and WA being lighter. The large standard steering wheel compensates for this. However the cars need plenty of space to manoeuvre – the 3 point turns often become a 5 point! A correctly adjusted peg and worm steering box gives good handling on the move. Steering boxes can be easily rebuilt and new track rod ends are available. Removing the steering drop arm can be quite a task. There is now a power steering option available which works well.
Expect around 20 mpg on the road from the SA and WA and around 25mpg from the VA. An unrestored engine will burn some oil and various oils will drip from around the car. The cars are all fitted with an oil level gauge that switches to show fuel level so make sure they both work. The clock on the SA and VA is a wind up 8 day movement. The WA had an electric clock, which was very modern for the period. Both are often inoperable but can be repaired, as can the rest of the instruments. The SA and VA have a small petrol tank of only 10 and 12 gallons respectively. The 16.6 gallons of the WA is much more practical.
Since new, SVW cars have been used for rallying. They appeared in the RAC Rallies and in 1937 entered in Italy the Mille Miglia. More recent events have seen the WA Tickford of Terry Maunder in the 2002 Maastricht to Monte Carlo Winter Trial, and Harry and Cathy Hickling in an SA Keller Replica successfully completing the gruelling Peking to Paris Rally in 2007.
What to pay
SVW cars can be quite expensive for good restored examples with the open cars having a small premium over the closed cars. The rarest are the SA Charlesworths and any of the WAs. Expect to pay well over £70,000 for a good example of these models with similar prices for restored SA Saloons and Tickfords. The VA is the cheaper car and prices are from £28,000 for a solid running Saloon to around £45,000 for a restored version. Concours WA Tickfords have sold for over £100,000. These valuations are current as of March 2020.
There are some cars that have had the original style of body changed. Usually the Saloon body has been replaced with a Tickford or Tourer body so it is always worth checking with the SVW Register before purchasing. It is fortunate that the MGCC hold the original MG factory production records for all of the SVW cars.